Israel could move to annex a large part of the West Bank soon, shattering hopes for a Palestinian state

In this sunken biblical oasis, Palestinians prepare for what they fear is Israel’s boldest territorial claim outside of war.

“We will stay here no matter what they do, we are not leaving our land,” said Ahmad Yagi, a teacher in his 50s in Aqabat Jaber, a nearby Palestinian refugee camp.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that as soon as Wednesday, Israel could move to annex up to 30% of the West Bank, home to sacred sites for major monotheistic religions and the heart of what many Palestinians and much of the rest from the country. The world has always hoped that one day it will be a Palestinian state.

In more than half a century since it seized the territory in the 1967 Middle East War, Israel maintained a military occupation and built an archipelago of Jewish settlements, some hilltop villages, others the size of cities.

Palestinians now have the weight of world opinion, the limitations of Israeli policy, and the lack of a clear United States mandate to prevent Netanyahu from fatally striking aspirations for Palestinian statehood.

International support for their cause was shown last week in Jericho at an anti-annexation rally attended by thousands of Palestinians and many high-ranking Western diplomats, though none from the United States.

United Nations Special Envoy for the Middle East Nickolay Mladenov told the crowd that annexation could “kill the very idea that peace and statehood for the Palestinian people can be achieved through negotiations.”

Saeb Erekat, a veteran Palestinian peace negotiator, said that despite the risk of COVID-19, as a 65-year-old lung transplant recipient, he is especially vulnerable, he participated in the rally to “defend my survival.”

“The international community came to us and told us that we are not alone,” said Erekat. “They told Netanyahu and Trump: You are on one side and confronting you is international law.”

And Arab states that have undertaken silent efforts to build ties with Israel warn that annexation would halt tentative steps toward normalization.

Annexation would amount to “the unilateral and illegal seizure of Palestinian land,” wrote the UAE ambassador to Washington Yousef Otaiba last week in the Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharonot.

Netanyahu has not yet told Israelis, Palestinians, or the world exactly what he plans to do.

On Friday, just as Israel closed for Saturday, its political rival and partner in government, Benny Gantz, issued a clearly worded warning not to continue annexation.

Amid the coronavirus outbreak and rising unemployment, annexation appears to be well below the list of concerns for most Israelis.

In a poll published June 8, just over a third of Israelis said they supported the annexation plan, which includes provisions for a Palestinian state, albeit geographically fragmented.

Meanwhile, senior Israeli security officials have failed to sign the idea of ​​annexation. Israeli army officials, informing the Cabinet, have warned that it will likely provoke a wave of violence directed against the Israelis. They have also complained that they have not yet seen any maps of the proposed plan.

Netanyahu, who failed in a series of national elections over the past year to secure a parliamentary majority and form a government led by his conservative Likud Party, is limited by a coalition agreement that prevents him from submitting to the government any annexation plan that it does not have explicit approval of Americans.

“I am not even sure that the Americans have found out what their final position is,” Zeev Elkin, a close ally to Netanyahu’s cabinet, said in a radio interview last week.

The Trump administration has sent mixed signals.

Although Netanyahu and his allies cite a peace plan written by President Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner as a green light to move forward with annexation, Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo said last week that extending Israeli sovereignty to the West Bank would be a decision “for the Israelis to make.”

The peace plan, which has been widely condemned by European and Arab governments, enshrines numerous Israeli land claims while offering Palestinians aid and economic benefits.

In talks in Washington last week, Kushner’s team and the US ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, discussed ways to frame the strategy and avoid the violent consequences. The talks ended Thursday without an agreement on “next steps,” said a National Security Council official.

Trump’s adviser Kellyanne Conway rejected predictions that there would be a backlash to the annexation as a “scare tactic” in light of what she called “thousands upon thousands of years of turmoil there.”

If the White House seems confused, the United States Congress does not. In the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives, at least 189 of the 233 Democrats signed a letter to Netanyahu last week, urging him to file the annexation plans and instead negotiate the creation of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel.

“I believe that two states for two peoples is essential to ensure a democratic and Jewish Israel that lives in peace with an independent and viable Palestinian state,” said Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), One of the authors of the letter.

Some observers say the prospect of annexation may, paradoxically, breathe new life into the hopes of the Palestinian state.

“Israel’s attempts to annex the West Bank have given Palestinians a renewed voice to say, ‘Look, it’s now or never, and we want a state as much as we have,'” said Louis Fishman, a professor in the Middle East. history at Brooklyn College.

“It could be argued that today they are weaker than they have been, perhaps since 1948,” the year Israel settled, Fishman said. But Palestinians could also benefit from a growing Western perception that “they are being deceived by something they deserve.”

Here in Jericho, 15 miles east of Jerusalem, a short distance from the magical Dead Sea, resignation competes with hope.

“I love my country,” said Valentina Ofeid, a 30-year-old teacher who traveled three hours to attend last week’s rally.

She lives in the city of Salfit, where Palestinians and Israeli settlers have repeatedly clashed. The West Bank belongs to Palestine, she said, and annexation would endanger the lives of her children.

Ahmad Wallaje, a Jericho worker, lamented that “the entire world has failed to convince Israel and the United States to give us a state.”

“The whole world recognizes our right to a country,” he said. “… But the international community may not put enough pressure on them. It cannot be that only two countries decide this issue. ”

Special correspondent Tarnopolsky reported from Jericho and Times writer King of Washington. Staff writer Tracy Wilkinson in Washington contributed to this report.